Education is the new black

“I was definitely really nervous at the start, to walk in. That will always stay with you. You’re walking by women you don’t know every week, they’re incarcerated and I’m not.”

Rewind to your first day of university. Imagine the immense pressure and stress of not knowing your surroundings or knowing anyone in your classroom. Now imagine half of your class being prisoners. This is what it is like for 15 RMIT University students each semester

Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

The Inside-Out Prison exchange program has only recently come to Australia. The Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Marngoneet Correctional Centre have opened their doors to a small group of students. More than 30,000 students have participated in this program across the US, Australia and the UK. Each student has the opportunity to study a university subject with male and female prisoners. Throughout Victoria, Inside-Out is delivered through RMIT University and it’s Criminology and Justice Studies. 

Marietta Martinovic introduced the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in Australia at three prisons in 2015. She loves the way it allows prisoners to be themselves. “Prisoners can take their masks off,” Martinovic said. “To survive the complex prison system, you often need to have a mask on while you’re in the environment. With this program you can just be yourself, and that is huge.” 

We were not allowed to interview any prisoners studying the program. RMIT university student Jane (not her real name) has shared a classroom with prisoners and spoke on condition of confidentiality. “I was definitely really nervous at the start, to walk in. That will always stay with you. You’re walking by women you don’t know every week, they’re incarcerated and I’m not.”

Jane said at times the program is a barrier between the prisoners and the students. “You’re reminded that you are very different to them, going in different directions. I am essentially protected and their lives aren’t.”

Incarcerated students can collaborate with university students and discuss their previous experiences of the criminal justice system, while also enlightening them on how the justice system could be improved. 

Martinovic said the program is based on the principle of equality. Those incarcerated have the opportunity to not only study, but see themselves as not just a number in the system. Being integrated with those on the outside world presents prisoners with a glimpse of freedom. To be able to hold conversations with students, and realise they are also entitled to an education, the prison exchange program is essential for prisoners’ future engagements in the outside world.   

The Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, 2019

This program allows the acceptance of all types offenders except sex offenders. The list includes those in drug related crimes, violent crimes and theft. Prisoners are not forced into the program, and all have an equal chance to participate. They must have a good track record in the system, be compliant and obey the rules. Prisoners undergo regular urine and drug testing. 

Many prisoners have been through a number of government systems, such as child protective services and the youth justice system. “They have been through the trajectory of a problematic lifestyle,” Martinovic said. “When they come to Inside Out they are disillusioned, they see themselves as only criminals. The aim of this program is to try and enlighten these prisoners, and show them that they can be so much more than just a part of a government system.” 

Previous studies conducted with this program in other countries have proven many benefits of education programmes in prisons at university level. Studies have shown that there is a 43% reduction in offenders re-committing crimes if they have participated in a prison education programme. 

While the Inside out program presents itself as a saviour for prisoners, there is still more room for improvement in Victoria. Martinovic said they are not necessarily flaws, but the Inside Out program can’t track prisoners after the program ends. With further funding the program aims to support participants to provide further education. 

The real question is, what do the prisoners think of this program? Jane said that as university students they are achieving so much, but what are the prisoners getting out of it? At the end of the semester the class had to complete a reflection. Jane asked one of the prisoners what they wrote about what they are gaining. She said:

“In prison they are not given a voice. They are not allowed to speak on matters that concern them. They tend to do mind-numbing activities, in a gossip-orientated environment. This is the first time in her sentence where she is able to say something that matters – to be educated and learn more about different societies, which is something that is really lacking in the prison system.”  

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